The word “merry” as in Merry Christmas developed from an Old English form “myrge” which denoted pleasing or melodious. “Myrge” is related to an older Germanic form that meant “short-lasting.” That interests me because the only time I ever hear the word “merry” used is during the relatively “short-lasting” Christmas season. No one says “Merry Easter” or “Merry Fourth of July” do they? The “melodious” connection is also fascinating, since we do so much singing around Christmas time. So, when we say “Merry Christmas” we are, linguistically at least, wishing people a pleasing, melodious Holy Communion (Lord’s Supper) celebrating the birth of Christ (Christ Mass). But that’s not what I mean when I say it. The phrase brings back to me remembrances of giving and receiving, fellowship and family, and, mostly, Jesus’ traditional birthday.
Before I learned that it was more blessed to give than to receive, I remember the joy of finding my first bicycle under the tree on Christmas morning. I got it before I knew how to ride it and it was a 26 inch one. I was seven, large for my age, so my mother found one that would last me as I grew. Learning to ride it was tricky because my arms would barely span the width of the handlebars. But with the “help” or better stated, torment, of my two older brothers, I got the hang of it. I also remember learning the joy of giving one Christmas later when I was eight. I had earned some money washing cars and mowing grass and wanted to buy Mother something nice. I went to Woolworth and bought her a black ceramic panther that I though was so cool. When she un-wrapped that gift, you would have thought it was made of gold. She kept that paltry piece of décor on her coffee table the rest of her life.
“Merry Christmas” also brings to mind celebrations with friends and family. I’m reading a book of journal entries, “I Acted From Principle,” by a Civil War surgeon. In Dr. McPheeter’s account of Christmas, even though it is war time and his work as surgeon required amputation after amputation, he relished the holiday for camaraderie, singing, drinking eggnog and seasonal games. My early memories of Christmas are set in dark international warfare at the tail end of the Great Depression, and yet they were happy times. My widowed mother found the wherewithal to provide a wonderful meal and we had cousins, aunts and uncles and friends at our humble abode throughout the season.
But, of course, the real reason for being merry during this season is the fact that Jesus was born in just the right time and place to satisfy prophesy and to establish the most astonishing and unexpected kingship ever. His story is eternal. As C. S. Lewis puts it, Christianity is the “true myth.” It is an event significant for all ages and beyond.
So, Merry Christmas means giving and receiving, friends and family, and robust celebration of the greatest mystery of the ages. Joy to the world!